A Post From January 2011 That Came Up Yesterday in a Discussion of the upcoming Photokina...


Perception and reality are intertwined.  And what is reality for one person isn't necessarily a reality for the person standing next to them.  The way in which you think about things determines the outcome.  If I know a technique will work, it works.  If I think being nice is hard then it becomes very difficult.

I find that many people have a thought process based on a search for a magic bullet or magic series of steps or charms or products that will unleash that person's creativity or allow them to live forever.  In their minds there is a need to do "research."  They cloister themselves in a library created from materials they find in the orbits they search and they proceed to read everything they can get their hands on.  They put off exercising or practicing or enjoying making art until they've accrued the "critical mass" of knowledge.  And it becomes like peeling an infinite onion because with every layer they peel back another layer of knowledge and detail is revealed.  And when that layer is dissected they move on to the next layer.  And when that layer has the juice wrung out of it they progress to the next layer.

The layer peeling in photography is prodigious.  And I find myself doing it in every facet of the business that I find frightening or unpleasant.  I don't like going out of the studio to show a portfolio.  Few people really do.  Instead, I spend time researching new ways of reaching out to clients.  We all do.  We rush to do e-mail blasts because it's easy and it gives us the impression that we're doing something smart.  We're reaching all those people on our list with an example of our work.  But we know that everyone else who fears rejection and face to face encounters to ask strangers for work first and then money is doing exactly the same thing:  sitting in their office, facing a screen and wracking their brains trying to think of something clever to say about a photo that's topical and hopefully interesting to a stranger.

When we finish with the e-mail blast we know we can't do it again for a few weeks so we "research" other ways to circumvent the stuff we fear = the face to face portfolio show.  Next we might turn our attentions to a postcard or start peeling the onion about presenting materials on our iPads.  We'll research which iPad to buy.  Which programs to make our portfolios in.  Which leather cover conveys the right message of coolness and affluence?  And, if we do our research right it should take up enough of our time and attention so that we've sliced thru a few weeks and we can now go back and start working on that next e-mail promotion without fear of saturating our audiences.  Of course we have no idea of how many people sent e-mail promotions to our intended victims yesterday or earlier today or the day after we do ours.  And, really, all marketing is contextual.

When we tire of the "marketing onion" there's always the "gear onion" to fall back on.  We might convince ourselves that our current equipment is no longer competitive with the rest of the photographers chasing the same clients.  We resolve to differentiate ourselves by "upgrading" which takes a lot of research....because, of course, we want to make the right investments....So back to the websites and the books.  Once that injection of courage is absorbed and we find ourselves still stuck by our own fears and our focus that tells us we don't know enough about the magic bullets, we take the next step which is to find a mentor.  Usually at a workshop.  We focus on the mentor's success and hope that by spending time and energy with him a process of osmosis will occur that causes the mentor's creative powers to undergo a mitosis that allows him to share that power with us.  We'll learn not only what the magic bullets are but also how to aim the creative gun and go "full automatic" on our prospective clients.

But that will drive us back into research in order to find a new order of clients who are perceptive enough to share the vision you siphoned from the mentor.  It's a cruel and endless loop.  And in the end your lack of success will probably lead you to reject the mentor and his arcane magic and go off in search of a "real" mentor.  And that might mean getting some new equipment which will, of course, mean new research.

But by changing the focus from "learning" to "doing" we change our reality.  We stop looking for subjects that will resonate well with our technical tool bag and start out with the magnetic attraction to things we love to see and love to look at.  And then we'll figure out, through trial and error, how to share, visually, the point of view we alone have that makes the subject magical to us, personally.

When we have a focus that comes from curiosity about the subject that focus drives our unique vision.  Impediments fall and we become so enthralled by being able to share our version of the story about that thing or event that we get over our reservations about showing our vision to the right people because we allow ourselves to become invested in the story not in the material reality of the book.  The book is just one vehicle for the story.

I guess this is my way of saying to many of my friends, and even to myself, that all of us have all the gear we need and all the research we need to be able to shoot just about anything we want to shoot right now.  We need to stop the endless cycle of research because it does three things:  1.  Our focus on "research" creates a comfortable pattern of procrastination from the actual doing.  2.  It robs us of our real power which can only come thru actualization.  Reaching out and doing.  Because it is within the process of doing that we evolve a feedback mechanism that allows us to learn and fine tune what we really like to see.  3.  Research, and it's buddy "the search for the magic bullet," rob us of our power by investing power into the idea that the people/artists that we aspire to mimic  operate creatively by a set and sellable formula and that the search for the formula trumps our search for ourselves.  But if we let go of the edge of the pool we could actually swim.

It's all about the doing.  Not the learning about doing.  I can teach someone to read a meter but I can't teach them how to feel about life and how to translate those feelings into art.  No one can.  It's only thru the process of exercise that the body becomes fit.  It's only thru the process of creating your own art that your creativity becomes fit.  And nobody wants a pudgy creative spirit.


Gregg Mack said...

"...all of us have all the gear we need and all the research we need to be able to shoot just about anything we want to shoot right now."

Kirk, that is certainly true to me personally right now, but part of the FUN of photography to me is learning about the new equipment, buying a small amount of what's out there, and learning how to use it (hopefully correctly).

I realize that a new camera isn't going to make me a better photographer. I get that. Sometimes something new, like a camera, can re-ignite a spark and the passion, though. I am speaking from a personal, hobby point of view - not from the professional "try to please the customer" point of view that you describe above.

This post is very thought-provoking, and I'm sure I'll cogitate over it the rest of the day. Thanks!

Claire said...

I like this post because it relates to another area of interest for me : being fit. There is an awful lot of motivation propaganda going on in the Internet and all of it is right. Fitness can be broken down to one very simple equation. Either you do (exercice, run, swim, lift weights...) or you don't. There's nothing easier when you feel lazy of scared of your workout than to open Amazon and start researching the next cool fitness book or DVD. But neither will do you any good as the research and purchase process takes the place of the actual workout. So here's the golden rule. The more sluggish and lazy you feel, the quicker you have to jump on that jump rope, sneakers or dumb bells, and smash your workout. It's also true that the one hardest fitness move of all is getting your ass off the couch.
Us photographers (amateurs) face one terrible thing, the most harmful of all : the lack of compelling things to shoot. When we feel bored, magnetically pulled to a DPR review or Amazon link and on the brink of ordering something (usually expensive and totally unneeded), the best thing we can do is grab our current camera and rush to shoot whatever we can. That's why I love being a portraitist and now having the deliberate project of documenting my child's growth over the years. I can sometimes make 2, or 3, pretty good frames of her on the same day, and might be able to do it again the next day, and the one after that, because people are forever changing and every expression can be interesting and have art within.
It doesn't cure all my gear lust, by far, but it helps some. And I've stopped buying fitness material nearly altogether. A skip rope, a couple of kettlebells and a lot of will power are all I need.

Jamie Pillers said...

Whoa, WHOA!! Slow down here Kirk! You of course realize that if too many people take your thoughts seriously, the internet would suddenly become a MUCH different (and seriously smaller) venue. And The Visual Science Lab would be tossed onto the junk pile of research/mentoring-rich websites no longer needed by all us 'doers' no longer having any time for such time-wasters! :-)

kirk tuck said...

I could live with that just knowing you'd all be happier and more productive... :-)

Steve J said...

Improving is and always will be a process of learning and doing. Learning without research is fine for a hobby, but you are unlikely to do anything particularly good or original. Why start from scratch when you can start where others have left off?

Similarly, learning without doing qualifies you for sounding off of forums but not much else.

I have learned a lot from various sources that has saved me time, improved my work and excited be about photography. The most demoralising thing for me is taking a lot of boring shots, however well executed they might be.

But my primary research involves learning about art. I like to understand what makes something interesting as well as just well executed. Not just photographic art either. Colour theory, composition and narrative all work as well in photos as they do in paintings, but in paintings it is easier to "disassemble" the elements and understand how they work because they are entirely deliberate. Edward Hopper for instance is a fantastic learning resource for photographers. Sargent as well.

My biggest challenge as a hobbyist is inspiration. I have enough gear and technique to do most things, but knowing WHAT I want to do is the hard bit. If I see something truly inspirational, it tends to spur me on and give me ideas and that's what brings the joy back into carrying a camera. And if I need to learn how to realise some of those ideas, then I will research and experiment until I can do it.

So my advice is: First find a creative goal, and then do whatever research and practice you need. Aimless shooting is as pointless as aimless research!


Ed Dombrowski said...

I have recently hit a funk with the summer doldrums here in Atlanta. I have not been taking as many pictures as i would like and the portrait sessions have dropped off until the weather gets cooler as all of my work is location based, usually outside. I have been so stuck in the rut of reading about photography techniques and gear far more than i have been thinking about what i can shoot.

This morning I had a great idea for a portfolio shoot that i would like to do. I have been wanting to photograph this particular person for a while but was stumped about a location. It just popped into my head this morning while i was working out. I am really looking forward to proposing my idea. I can already see the pictures in my head. I think that is what you are talking about. When i dont see the pictures all i see is the next "big announcement". I have all the gear I need to make this picture. I just need to do it now. Thanks for your posts and keeping it in perspective. I have only been a reader for about a month but i look forward to your perspective every day.


Anonymous said...

Great commentary, I've seen this over and over in every kind of self motivated business. Especially those that require cold calling. People spend all their time planning to do but never doing. Just do it! You learn more by doing anyway...